Obama pledges to discuss Alaska’s proposed gas pipeline with Canadian leaders

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Wednesday called Alaska’s proposed natural gas pipeline “promising” as a national energy resource, and pledged to discuss it with Canadian leaders during his Feb. 19 trip to Ottawa.

“It’s a project of great potential and something I’m very interested in,” Obama said Wednesday during an interview in the White House with the Anchorage Daily News and 15 other regional newspapers.

“As I mentioned during the campaign, I actually think that for us to move forward on the natural gas pipeline as part of a comprehensive energy strategy _ that includes both more production as well as greater efficiency _ makes a lot of sense,” Obama said. “As it happens, Prime Minister Harper, as well as President Calderon of Mexico, have a great interest in energy. Obviously, Canada is one of the biggest energy players in the world. They share an interest not only the production side, of the economic benefits, but I think they’re also interested in a broader conversation about efficiency and how it relates to issues like climate change.”

Gov. Sarah Palin wrote to Obama last week asking him to discuss the pipeline with Prime Minister Stephen Harper when he visits Canada next week during first foreign trip as president.

Alaskans have “appreciated your strong support for the construction of such a pipeline,” Palin wrote, adding that the pipeline should be “a significant component of North American energy policy in the years to come.” Palin was unaware Wednesday that her letter had been read, saying she had sent it only “just the other day.”

The pipeline entered the national consciousness this fall, when as a vice presidential candidate, Palin touted her work at pushing the project through the Alaska Legislature. The pipeline, a dream of Alaska governors since the 1970s, has an estimated price tag of at least $30 billion.

The project had broad support from former President George W. Bush, who signed off on creating a federal pipeline coordinator and in 2004 agreed to loan guarantees and federal tax credits for the project. In 2007, then-Vice President Dick Cheney urged the Alaska Legislature to act on a gas line proposal.

The Alaska Legislature last summer granted TransCanada an exclusive state license to build the gas line, which would begin on the North Slope and cross Canada to reach U.S. markets. The Calgary-based company has already been promised $500 million in state subsidies and up to $20 billion in federal loan guarantees.

During Wednesday’s interview, the president also touched on other energy issues. He said he believes offshore drilling can be appropriate _ but only in limited circumstances and as part of an overall energy mix that includes an emphasis on greater efficiency. Obama said he prefers to hold out for a “more comprehensive strategy” rather than proceed with wide-scale drilling in the nation’s outer continental shelf.

“In isolation, I think it’s shortsighted because it’s not going to come on line quickly enough and provide enough oil to fill the hole that we’re going to be seeing in the years to come,” he said.

He also reiterated his support for the announcement this week by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who on Tuesday effectively slowed any new leases in the outer continental shelf for six months.

“I think it is entirely appropriate for this administration to take a step back, push the pause button, and review what’s been done in terms of leases on federal lands,” the president said. “We had an administration that I think was heavily tilted towards opening up lands to commercial interests, was less concerned with environmental issues and sustainability issues.”

In the meeting, Obama also touched on the potential job for creation in the economic stimulus bill, which looks more likely to arrive on his desk by the end of the week. The White House estimates that the stimulus package could save or create as many as 9,000 jobs in Alaska, where unemployment reached a five-year high in December.

Sean Cockerham of the Anchorage Daily News contributed to this report.

(c) 2009, Anchorage Daily News. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.